A year ago, an obituary appeared on the pages of Dawn of someone called A. Cowasjee.
Many well-meaning fans and friends of famous columnist and social activist Ardeshir Cowasjee, rushed to
his home, only to find the man up and about, playing with
his dogs and inspecting his garden.
Yes, the obituary was of some other Cowasjee. Ardeshir couldn’t help but exhibit his amusement regarding the episode in one of his columns.
He was first bemused by seeing people appear at his gate, look at him as he walked around in his shorts, and then turn away, some without even uttering a single word.
The bemusement turned into a dark comedy when he finally realised what was going on. An old colleague of his told me how he laughed at a bureaucrat who, like many others, appeared at his gate, stood on his toes and silently peeked at Cowasjee.
In the typical style that he spoke Urdu, Cowasjee shouted out: ‘Tum fikar na karo. Hum abhi tak zinda hai!’ (Don’t you worry, I’m still alive). What a character.
Tomorrow the newspapers will be carrying another obituary for an A. Cowasjee. But this time it will be about the Cowasjee so many Pakistanis have come to love, loath or simply get perplexed by.
For almost three decades, Ardeshir Cowasjee remained one of the most read and influential columnists in Pakistan.
Though he wrote for an English language daily, his words reached and echoed in the most significant corners and corridors of power.
Cowasjee came from a well-off Zoroastrian family. Based in Karachi, he was still managing his family business when, in 1972, Prime Minster Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appointed him as the Managing Director of the Pakistan Tourism Development Board (PTDB) – a body formed to accommodate and further attract Western tourists who had begun to come in droves from the late 1960s onwards.
Despite the fact that Cowasjee turned out to be an asset for the board, three years later in 1976, Bhutto suddenly got him arrested. Cowasjee spent days behind bars, where he continued writing letters to Bhutto asking him why he was put in jail. Bhutto never answered, even though he finally ordered his release after 72 days.
Many believe that Cowasjee faced Bhutto’s wrath because he had begun to criticise the Bhutto regime’s growing authoritarianism, in spite of it coming into power through the democratic process.
After Bhutto was toppled by General Ziaul Haq in a military coup in 1977, Cowasjee began writing letters to Dawn’s ‘Letters to the Editor’ section castigating the fallen Bhutto regime.
His well-written and evocatively worded letters became a frequent fixture in Dawn as he then ventured into other topics; topics that gradually began to attract the anger of the Zia dictatorship as well.
In a time when the press was being openly gagged and harassed, Cowasjee was one of the first Pakistanis to invent and articulate a way that has now become a common device used by liberals and secularists to critique political Islam in Pakistan.
After taking Bhutto to task, his letters turned their attention towards the draconian doings of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and its so-called ‘Islamisation’ project.
Cowasjee did this by simply stating over and over again that the Jinnah (founder of Pakistan) he had met and followed as a young man did not conceptualise Pakistan the way the country’s politicians and military generals were doing.
This argument of his struck a nerve with a number of Dawn readers and soon Cowasjee was invited by the newspaper’s editor, Ahmed Ali Khan, to write a regular column for what was and still is one of Pakistan’s largest English dailies.
In his columns of the mid and late 1980s he continued to bemoan how both Bhutto and Zia had gone about shattering Jinnah’s dream. After Zia’s demise in 1988, Cowasjee became even more pointed against the civilian governments that followed Zia, accusing them of corruption and nepotism.
Also, by the early 1990s, he had slowly been moving away from his old rhetorical style and towards putting on paper hard facts and figures as he went about like a man on a one-way mission putting parties like the PPP, PML-N and the MQM to sword.
Also being a passionate Karachiite with a desire to see his beloved city return to being what it had been before the 1980s, Cowasjee directly confronted the powerful ‘building and land mafia,’ using both his pen and the courts to halt the construction of a number of illegal and gaudy shopping arcades and parking lots – especially on lands that were originally allotted to support parks.
This was also the period when Cowasjee began receiving serious death threats, but he soldiered on.
Though in his columns of the 1980s and 1990s, Cowasjee had always spoken about his understanding of Jinnah being a progressive man, it was from the late 1990s onwards that he openly began to suggest that Jinnah perceived Pakistan to be a progressive, secular Muslim country.
This was Cowasjee reacting to what the second Nawaz Sharif government was planning to do: To introduce a constitutional bill that would have actually endorsed Sharif’s jump from being a prime minster to becoming an ‘Ameerul Momineen.’
So when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the Nawaz regime in 1999, Cowasjee cynically mocked Sharif almost exactly the way he had done Bhutto, Zia and Benazir. His overall message remained to be that all these leaders were misfits in a Pakistan that Jinnah had conceived.
They were misfits because they were selfish, authoritarian and never far from using religion and other populist gimmicks to retain power.
During his early years, Cowasjee seemed supportive of Musharraf, but all the while advised him not to repeat the mistakes of other Pakistani military dictators like Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq.
In other words, Cowasjee was warning him to stay away from the usual civilian lot that becomes active only when allowed into the corridors of power through the backdoor. Cowasjee knew better and as the society under Musharraf and after the September 11 episode began to fully reap what was sown in the name of Islam by Zia, Cowasjee started to sound extremely bitter and cynical.
Shrugging at Musharraf’s political misadventures, Cowasjee became more direct and critical against the religious lobbies and parties, so much so that many of them began to accuse him of being anti-Islam.
In 2003, banners went up in Karachi cursing Cowasjee of working against the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan’ and Islam, and the government had to post police guards outside his home in Karachi’s Bath Island area.
This was also the period when Cowasjee began appearing as guest on privately owned television channels that had exploded onto the scene after 2003.
But on TV Cowasjee was nothing like he was in print. Instead of the articulate columnist with a great command over the English language, Cowasjee decided to almost entirely speak in Urdu.
His Urdu was crude and unsophisticated but ironically perfect to express the more frustrated aspects of his personality that had been building up for decades as he saw his country rapidly slip into a quagmire of authoritarianism, corruption, intolerance and violence.
By now he had also become extremely cynical. First, about this country’s leadership that kept producing one bad apple after another and then about the Pakistani people, whom he began to describe as a lot without any ability to learn from past mistakes or correctly decide what was actually good for them.
So on TV, no matter how hard an anchor would try to make Cowasjee sound like he did in his columns, Cowasjee would refuse and instead continue to use Urdu slang and words like ‘khachar’ (donkey), ‘chariya’ (demented), ‘chor’ (thief), among others, to define politicians, military men and their followers.
For example, during one such TV show when asked what he thought about Pakistan’s status of being a nuclear power, he smirked, pressed mischievously upon his walking stick, and said: ‘Sala iss qaum sey guttur to bundh hota nahi, bum kya chalaye ga …’ (how can this nation be a nuclear power when it doesn’t even know how to stop the flow of an overflowing gutter).
Though he first appeared to be a man whose old age had given him the license to scold the powers that be in the crudest of Urdu, he ultimately became a caricature of himself; or rather was reduced to being one by an electronic media whose own cynicism was not only more amoral but wrapped in all the hypocritical trappings Pakistan’s establishment, polity and society have been quivering in.
Alas, better sense prevailed and Cowasjee’s TV appearances gradually came to a halt. But his columns kept coming and by the time he announced his retirement late last year, he had gone back to once again remind his many readers that this was certainly not the Pakistan Jinnah had dreamt about.
He lamented the fact that Jinnah had passed away too early and that it was left to old men like him to see this dream crumble, piece by piece, right in front of their eyes.
At the time of his death the police guards were still posted outside his house as threats from the building mafia and religious outfits never did stop. But these guards, though provided by the government, were largely financed and fed by Cowasjee.
A Zoroastrian, he always explained himself to be a humanist because to him all religions were basically about humanitarianism.
Cowasjee was also involved in a number of charities, where he liberally donated money for the education of needy students, the construction of parks and a number of other causes.
And though he usually came out as being an angry old man in his columns, in private life he was a warm-hearted family man and someone who always cherished receiving all kinds of people at his home.
In the area where he lived throughout his life in Karachi (Bath Island), his beautiful old bungalow with old shady trees, a neatly manicured garden and low walls is a reminder of what Karachi was once like.
In fact, the street where his house stands is also the only street left in Bath Island that maintains a semblance to what the area was like before it was turned into a congested bundle of ugly apartment buildings and uglier bungalows of the neuvo-riche, who began arriving here after the late 1980s.
As a columnist and more so, as a genuine fan of Jinnah’s, I’m sure Cowasjee passed away heartbroken, unable to actually see Pakistan become what he thought Jinnah wanted it to become. But as a man he lived a full life, leaving behind a huge number of fans and friends to remember him for a very long time.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com